‘Vous êtes la première chose que je vois en m’éveillant’: portraits in Voltaire’s bedroom
Voltaire had many bedrooms during his long life, but the best documented is the one at the Château de Ferney, where he spent a considerable portion of his last twenty years sleeping, working, or entertaining guests.
The team recently restoring the château faced a quandary. Since Voltaire’s death, the pictures hanging in his bedroom have been changed and a cenotaph added, some of the room’s walls knocked down, and finally its contents transferred to a different room altogether. It was decided that, rather than recreating a room from the 1760s or 1770s that no longer exists, Voltaire’s ‘bedroom’ should be kept much as visitors have known it since the mid-nineteenth century.
Voltaire’s bedroom in his lifetime
Perhaps Voltaire’s bedroom at Ferney was originally hung with portraits of family members, including those done in pastel by his youngest niece, Mme Dompierre de Fontaine, of herself and of her son, as had been the case at Les Délices. Perhaps Mme Du Châtelet’s portrait was also there from the start.
By 1765, some friends in Paris had come up with the idea of getting Carmontelle’s gouache of the Calas family in prison engraved to raise money for the Calas family. On 17 January 1766, Voltaire wrote to Calas’s widow that he would keep the planned engraving at his bedside, even though he had never met her, ‘et le premier objet que je verrai en m’éveillant sera la vertu persécutée et respectée’. This in due course he did, writing on 9 May: ‘J’ai baisé votre estampe, Madame, je l’ai placée au chevet de mon lit. Vous et votre famille vous êtes la première chose que je vois en m’éveillant. Monsieur votre fils Pierre est parfaitement ressemblant, je suis persuadé que vous l’êtes de même’.
Jean Huber was no doubt the first to depict Voltaire in his bedroom, in a painting (or three) that displeased its main subject. This irreverent image of him in his nightclothes proliferated in the form of engravings: there is one with a maid, one with verse designed to irritate Voltaire, even one with a portrait of his arch-enemy Fréron hanging on his wall. Grimm reported in his Correspondance littéraire of 1 November 1772 that Voltaire had not yet forgiven Huber for this loss of control over his public image. But how faithful was the depiction of his bedroom? The version in the St Petersburg Hermitage Museum has red curtains, while the one at the Musée Voltaire has blue. Musée Carnavalet also has blue, but shows an engraving of Carmontelle’s painting of the Calas family in prison hanging near the head of the bed.
In 1774, a new portrait was given the distinction of being placed close to Voltaire’s bed. This time it was the actor Lekain as Nero drawn in pastel by Pierre Martin Barat: ‘Vous êtes à côté de mon lit, mon cher ami, et le souvenir de vos talents et de votre mérite sera toujours dans mon cœur’.
In June 1775, Amélie Suard mentioned two other images, Mme Du Châtelet’s portrait and a second Calas engraving, the one by Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki entitled Les adieux de Calas à sa famille, again inside Voltaire’s bed: ‘dans l’intérieur de son lit il a les deux gravures de la famille des Calas. Je ne connaissais pas encore celle qui représente la femme et les enfants de cette victime du fanatisme, embrassant leur père au moment où on va le mener au supplice; elle me fit l’impression la plus douloureuse, et je reprochai à M. de Voltaire de l’avoir placée de manière à l’avoir sans cesse sous ses yeux’. Mme Suard nevertheless went on to heap praise on Voltaire for the good he had done the whole of humanity. No doubt the engraving was to Voltaire as much a reminder of success as of ‘la vertu persécutée’.
In January 1776, another flurry of engravings set in Voltaire’s bedroom incurred his displeasure. Vivant Denon had visited in early July 1775 and showed Voltaire sitting up in bed, surrounded by members of his household and a mutual friend, the composer Jean-Benjamin de Laborde (although he had not been present at the time). Only the first Calas engraving can be seen inside Voltaire’s bed curtains. Was it the invasion of a ‘private’ space that Voltaire objected to? Or the juxtaposition of the serious Calas image and a frivolous social one? In any case, he complained to Vivant Denon that ‘Un homme qui se tiendrait dans l’attitude qu’on me donne, et qui rirait comme on me fait rire, serait trop ridicule’.
The inventory that was made of Voltaire’s property after his death lists ‘four medium paintings with gilded frames’ in his room, but only identifies one of his mother, Marie-Marguerite Arouet (possibly this painting), and one of his eldest niece and companion, Mme Denis (possibly the fourth image on this page, formerly attributed to Carle van Loo and now, tentatively, to François-Hubert Drouais, and copied in pastel by Mme Denis’s sister, Mme Dompierre de Fontaine).
Voltaire’s bedroom after his death
The marquis de Villette soon bought the château and owned it until 1785. On 23 November 1779, the Mémoires secrets gave an extract from a letter stating that he had kept Voltaire’s room just as it was – while at the same time installing a cenotaph (later moved to the main salon) and assembling Voltaire’s favourite portraits there: apparently these included those of Catherine the Great, Frederick, one of Frederick’s sisters, Mme Du Châtelet, Lekain, D’Alembert, d’Argental, as well as Villette himself and his wife…
A 1781 engraving which seems to take artistic licence with the room’s layout shows the cenotaph and no fewer than forty easily identifiable portraits of illustrious contemporaries, men and women, lining the walls. A portrait of Mme Denis which looks very like a detail of the Vivant Denon engraving hangs in the place of honour at the head of the bed. No Calas engravings are visible.
The room looks quite different in an engraving from the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The bed curtains and cover have visibly shrunk as successive visitors cut small mementoes for themselves, and the portraits on show are limited to five: Catherine the Great’s portrait woven in silk by Philippe de Lasalle (given to Voltaire by Lasalle in 1771), Frederick the Great painted in oil by Anna Dorothea Liszewska Therbusch (sent by Frederick, at Voltaire’s request, in 1775), the previously mentioned pastel of Lekain by Barat (1774), a pastel of Voltaire attributed to Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1735?), and an oil painting of Mme Du Châtelet by Marie-Anne Loir (presumably before 1749).
This matches the description by a visitor published in The New Monthly Magazine in 1824, which also lists the prints ‘on each side of the window which faces the bed’, i.e. the fourth wall not on the engraving. The line-up is now thoroughly male: Diderot, Newton, Franklin, Racine, Milton, Washington, Corneille, and Marmontel on one side, and Thomas, Leibnitz, Mairan, D’Alembert, Helvétius, and the duc de Choiseul on the other. The first Calas engraving and a ‘sort of emblematical print of the tomb of Voltaire in Paris, dedicated to la marquise de Villette, dame de Ferney’ complete the set for this wall.
The visitor then mentions two more pictures somewhat at odds with the royals and intellectuals filling the walls: ‘In another part of the room are two very pretty pictures of a boy and a Madonna-looking girl, which our old Cicerone said were painted by order of Voltaire. The boy is a Savoyard, with a tattered cocked-hat, and the young woman, we were told, was ‘La blanchisseuse’ […] If it were really of the blanchisseuse, I can only say that Voltaire had a very pretty washerwoman’. Another engraving situates a ‘repasseuse’ and a ‘ramoneur’ (no doubt the same blanchisseuse and Savoyard) on the left-hand side of the room.
Twenty years later, Jules Michelet’s guide must have had a more vivid imagination, since the historian noted in his journal for Monday 14 August 1843 that Voltaire had launched the career of the ‘savoyard’ who became an ironmonger on the corner of the rue de Beaune and that the ‘blanchisseuse’ was in fact a daughter he had had with one of Mme Denis’s chambermaids… In his Dictionary of pastellists, Neil Jeffares identifies her as the wife of Voltaire’s secretary Wagnière. The Savoyard still hangs in Voltaire’s room and is sometimes identified as the pastel by Voltaire’s youngest niece of her son d’Hornoy that she sent him in 1755. It is clearly derived from Drouais’s Jeune garçon au tricorne and, since Mme Dompierre de Fontaine copied the Drouais painting of her sister, this doesn’t seem entirely implausible.
Flaubert left a soulful description of his visit to the château in 1845, carefully itemising the bed, the pictures, and the cenotaph, as so many had done before him, but also mentioning the wall hangings: ‘la tenture est de soie jaune à fleurs’ (the blue background having faded beyond recognition): ‘On voudrait y être enfermé pendant tout un jour à s’y promener seul. Triste et vide, le jour vert, livide du feuillage, pénétrait par les carreaux; on était pris d’une tristesse étrange, on regrettait cette belle vie remplie, cette existence si intellectuellement turbulente du dix-huitième siècle, et on se figurait l’homme passant de son salon dans sa chambre, ouvrant toutes ces portes…’
He must have been one of the last visitors to witness it in this state. Voltaire’s and his housekeeper’s rooms were soon knocked through and Voltaire’s room set up again in the now
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